Thursday, 29 September 2016

Book #47

Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship, and Dangerous Hobbies by JK Rowling

These stories of heroism, hardship and dangerous hobbies profile two of the Harry Potter stories’ most courageous and iconic characters: Minerva McGonagall and Remus Lupin. J.K. Rowling also gives us a peek behind the closed curtains of Sybill Trelawney’s life, and you’ll encounter the reckless, magical-beast-loving Silvanus Kettleburn along the way.

I cannot get enough of the bloody wizarding world.

This short collection of stories from Rowling delves into the lives of two of my favourites - McGonagall and Lupin - alongside those of Trelawney and Kettleburn. I greedily devoured the childhoods, loves, and family lives of the former two; both of them had such heartbreak and darkness surrounding them. Going into this already emotionally invested in both of them, it was a really sad, but important, read.

McGonagall's choice between locking away either her wand or her love for a Muggle farm boy was woefully tragic. I loved seeing this side of her. Despite loving her fierce yet composed manner, and her strict but loving teaching methods, seeing a reckless, besotted McGonagall only made her ultimate decision all the more heart wrenching. To then see this episode in her life cement her close friendship with Dumbledore after an evening's spilling of hearts, well didn't my heart just spill over as well.

Lupin's family life, and self-imposed exile from society was another blow. To think of the weight his father had to carry, knowing his son's condition was entirely his fault, is absolutely harrowing. Lupin's moral battle over whether to marry Tonks, and the deeper insight into this thought process, made me melt inside. That he finally succumbed to his feelings only to die shortly afterwards is akin to a Shakespearean tragedy. I'm still not over that.

Trelawney and Kettleburn's chapters were considerably shorter, but I was grateful for their comedic value. I've always enjoyed Trelawney's smoke and mirrors approach to her supposed skill, and the details on Kettleburn were nothing short of hilarious, despite his blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance in the novels.

This was a wonderful little collection of details on the characters I loved the most from the series. It's pleasing to see that Rowling hasn't yet left the wizarding world behind and is continuing to give us more of what we what.

I'd like a Marauders one next; an entire book, not a wee one like this. Please and thank you.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Book #46

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now.

This was outstanding.

In a horrifying dystopian future, women are stripped of their money, their job, their name, and their rights. Those who are unmarried, in second marriages, or in any kind of marriage the government disapprove of, are uprooted from their family homes and installed into the lives of those with status. Their role is to conceive a child for their appointed commander and his wife, due to the nations fertility problems.

I fooled myself into thinking this would be the story of a strong feminist narrator who would overcome and perhaps overthrow the rules pressing down upon on her. It was much more melancholy than that; it was quiet, it was sad, it was a narrator who had accepted her fate, accepted her instruction, and lived each day in an apathetic haze. She tells her story with a subtlety which can only be described as frightening, flicking into memories of her previous life with a distant, yet resigned, longing.

Making sense of the world Offred has found herself in was absolutely wonderful. Atwood writes with a confusing sense of unreality until more is given away slowly, and the mist begins to clear. We're left pretty much on our own to work out the details, and this trust in her reader is beautiful, making the realisation an unnerving prize; we've worked for it, but by this point, we're not sure we want it anymore.

I was struck by Offred's memories of her past, and her commentary on how she didn't realise she was happy then. This is utterly frightening; does it take something like that to make us realise we were happy? Do we ever stop and think, this is beautiful; I'm so happy? Rarely, is my guess.

One other moment of wonder for me was in Offred's flashback to the day she realised her bank account had been stopped, and her entire property transferred to her husband. She remembers how unmoved he was by this; he didn't understand her upset, he couldn't see how this was affecting her so badly. She thought, in some deep place, he actually liked the power. Think about that for a second.

Those of us who cannot thrive on an open ending won't do well with the finale of this novel. But the ambiguity is the whole point. Should we see our protagonist with a happy ending? Or does that just suggest that even in the most oppressive and dictating society, there are such things as happy endings? We were guessing the fates of all of the characters here; why not one more? With this, Atwood has ensured we will never forget the handmaid.

What terrified me most about this novel was that the government's horrific return to 'old values' was spurred on by an Islamic Fundamentalist attack. It was written in 1984. With all that's going on in our present day, it's not too difficult to imagine the implementation of new (or indeed old) doctrines which could, no doubt, entirely oppress a collective group. It makes you understand the women's attraction to the self-knotted rope. The scariest dystopian novels are the ones that aren't so unrealistic.

This is a stifling and totally disturbing account of how our daily routine and comforts can be stripped away in a small space of time. That the regime we are used to is entirely controlled by our government; laws can be passed to change whatever security we hold dear, and if that happens, the most likely outcome will be that we keep silent in order to prevent the worst.

I will never forget this book.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Book #45

The Nightingales are Drunk by Hafez

Sensual, profound, delighted, wise, Hafez's poems have enchanted their readers for more than 600 years. One of the greatest figures of world literature, he remains today the most popular poet in modern Iran. 

In this collection of poems, Hafez focuses on three things I have found myself to be very well acquainted with: love, heartbreak, and wine. 

I will go on to proclaim myself a poetry dunce, as I do in most of my poetry reviews. I can't seem to get in touch with the rhythm and flow (something that also affects my dancing), although I am able to appreciate the words and sentiment. These seemed a bit clunky, which I am confident is completely down to the translation; the originals, I'm sure, are a much better read.

Hafez's musings on the three most impactful things in life are both heavy and light in beautiful ways. His commentary surprised me; his thinking as a man of the 14th century similar to my own in the present day (especially on the powers of wine). I particularly enjoyed his referrals to himself in third person, as though he were either guiding himself through life, or chastising his own behaviour; something I have used as a self-help tactic on more than one occasion.

Despite my idiocy in line and verse, I consume poetry now for the feelings it evokes in me. Not all of these poems evoked anything at all, but when they did, it was nothing but understanding, approval, and complete awe. A worthwhile inclusion in the LBC range, and yet another attempt to acclimatise myself to the wonders of poetry under my belt. 

Book #44

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

New York, 1895. Sylvan Threadgill, a night soiler cleaning out the privies behind the tenement houses, finds an abandoned newborn baby in the muck. An orphan himself, Sylvan rescues the child, determined to find where she belongs.  
Odile Church and her beautiful sister, Belle, were raised amid the applause and magical pageantry of The Church of Marvels, their mother’s spectacular Coney Island sideshow. But the Church has burnt to the ground, their mother dead in its ashes. Now Belle, the family’s star, has vanished into the bowels of Manhattan, leaving Odile alone and desperate to find her. 
A young woman named Alphie awakens to find herself trapped across the river in Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum—sure that her imprisonment is a ruse by her husband’s vile, overbearing mother. On the ward she meets another young woman of ethereal beauty who does not speak, a girl with an extraordinary talent that might save them both. 
As these strangers’ lives become increasingly connected, their stories and secrets unfold. Moving from the Coney Island seashore to the tenement-studded streets of the Lower East Side, a spectacular human circus to a brutal, terrifying asylum, Church of Marvels takes readers back to turn-of-the-century New York—a city of hardship and dreams, love and loneliness, hope and danger. 

It takes a lot for me to pick up a novel I haven't previously heard of, judging only by the cover (for shame) and the blurb. Both of these left me spellbound in a branch of Chapters in Kitchener, so I allowed myself the plunge. Thoughts of a circus sideshow and freak show and an asylum in turn of the century New York had my brain spinning into American Horror Story territory. My excitement was off the charts.

Immediately disappointed, I found I wasn't as taken with the story as I'd initially been convinced of. Parry narrates using the storylines of four different characters, which is confusing and irritating to begin with. There's no clear link between the characters' lives, and the first half of the novel reads like a jumble and bustle of nonsense. I couldn't possibly see how these were going to come together. My downfall here was trying to constantly guess where everything was going, and becoming annoyed with myself when I realised I was wrong. The best way to enjoy this novel is to immerse yourself in Parry's words and descriptions, imagine New York in 1895, and truly understand the glory in her work.

The words were glorious and colourful, flitting from the rainbow brightness of Coney Island, to the browns and greys of the night-time slums. I could smell the streets. The detail and complexity demands an attention I was only more than happy to give, however this isn't a story that can be picked up effortlessly. You're in this for the long haul. Find a quiet few hours to devour the words, and let the strands of these four peoples' lives intertwine in your mind.

Parry's characters were gorgeous, detailed, and hopelessly real. Each of them alone, each of them flawed, and each of them broken in their own ways; I felt for them all. This was a time in which their situations and their actions were disapproved of, all of them were social outcasts in their unique way, and all of them burnt a hole in my heart.

I was excited to read of New York in this era, but it wasn't quite as glamorous as I'd imagined. Prostitution, opium dens, babies for sale, an island asylum, and a guy who mucks out the shit in the privies, all had me hitting the ground with a hard bump when I realised it was a dark New York, akin to Dickensian London, I was being shown. The grim portrayal, however, was gorgeous in its own right.

Despite my original worries, Parry wound this up so tightly. Resolving everything with care, shock tactics, and more twists than a sideshow acrobatic, it's difficult to believe this is a debut novel. Please only pick this up if you're willing to devote the time, devour the words, and decipher the text.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Book #43

I See You by Clare Mackintosh

When Zoe Walker sees her photo in the classifieds section of a London newspaper, she is determined to find out why it's there. There's no explanation: just a website, a grainy image and a phone number. She takes it home to her family, who are convinced it's just someone who looks like Zoe. But the next day the advert shows a photo of a different woman, and another the day after that.
Is it a mistake? A coincidence? Or is someone keeping track of every move they make . . .

For those not hugely used to psychological thrillers, this is a good one. The plot flicks along nicely, and you find yourself trusting none of the characters as your mind battles to find a culprit. That's all you amateurs need. For me, a psychological thriller should make me feel as though I'm being chased through a maze of mirrors: no idea where to turn next, no idea where the next attack is going to come from, and most importantly, no idea if I'm going to make it out.

In comparison to the giant that is I Let You Go, this is a disappointing sister. It lacks suspense, impact, and doesn't pack nearly half as much of a punch as its predecessor. Most of all, it instilled absolutely none of the panic and confusion that the debut did so expertly.

Mackintosh's characters were boring, flat, and unlikeable. This wasn't for lack of depth; we were given every inch of their history to the point it was unnecessary and utterly dull. The protagonist, Zoe, was completely beige and irritating - the worst type of character to try and support. I was completely apathetic with regards to her domestic woes, pathetic daily struggles, and even the scary situation and her fate. I was just tagging along because I'm nosey.

The other characters were as equally bland, and written as caricatures of themselves. Zoe's children are your typical son who likes to stay in his room, and daughter who gets an older boyfriend, and making her mother feel like she's losing her. Then we have a cheating ex-husband who drives a taxi, and a live-in partner who's the more intellectual, sensitive sort. Groundbreaking.

I liked the modern day premise of using technology to commit crimes; it was clever, and surprisingly still quite original considering how we all use it in this day and age. Everything just seemed so contrived and completely predictable. Readers know how to eliminate suspects; if you're only halfway through the book and someone's having the finger pointed at them - it's not them; if you meet someone and think it couldn't possibly be them - it probably is. We need this to be flipped on its arse in order to shock us. Mackintosh did not achieve this, despite having done so in her previous novel.

Worst of all, the finale was completely disappointing. No shock horror, no heart hammering in your chest, no real good vs evil devotion encouraging you to root for anyone. Just a dull, half-hearted ache in your head that translates to, could someone just die so I can start reading something else?

This isn't like pulling teeth - it's readable, and it's enjoyable to a degree; I just feel Mackintosh has fallen into the success trap, with an excellent debut novel doing so well rendering a need to rush out a second as soon as possible. A real shame; this could have been a belter, but it felt shallow and rushed.